When I first started writing this piece we’d not yet woken up to the news about Trump becoming the next leader of the free world. This puts an interesting spin on any piece about venting. Over the last few days I have been privy to many a venting session – not least because my husband is American. (He woke me at 6.30am on November 8th with the words “The world has gone to hell.”)
It all feels rather familiar, a reminder of the post-Brexit outpouring of emotion. I felt visceral rage when, the day after the Leave results were announced, that bloody Winnie the Pooh and Piglet image kept popping up in my feed, telling me to chill out and make nice. I can see the same reactions now among my American friends, some of whom are trying to reach out and understand the other side, make reparations, and the others who are saying ‘hell, no… I am not moving on from this. This is wrong.” Yes, perhaps anger is a choice, but it can feel like a necessary choice – I needed to express to process that emotion. I needed to feel validated by others experiencing the same feelings.
But at a certain point, though I still felt angry, I realised I had to stop venting. It was sucking too much energy from me and it felt futile. And so, with any grief cycle, my feelings of acute anger and fear have now abated to grim (but not passive) acceptance.
Now here I am writing a self-help piece about venting, and why it might and might not be that good for us – and I worry I might be one of those voices that shames those who want to express righteous anger. But perhaps that means that now is the best time to look at the purpose of venting – if there is one.
What do we mean by venting?
The term ‘vent’ literally means to let off steam, the easing of pressure through a small outlet. So in theory, venting our frustration will help us to calm us down. Burst out with your irritations and concerns from the day, and you’ll feel some release. Psychologists refer to this as catharsis theory, the idea that ‘rumination’ is more effective at diffusing anger than distraction. For over a century, the likes of Freud and his followers have told us that expressing anger was far more healthy than bottling it up. Jung famously said, ‘what we resist, persists.”
But more recent behavioural research questions whether this is actually true, and suggest that far from easing anger, venting increases those negative feelings.
Venting appears to fuel anger, not ease it
In this now well known 2002 study, “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?” subjects were asked to pummel a punching bag while thinking about someone who had angered them. There was also a ‘no punching bag’ control group for comparison purposes. When examined, the group who had ‘released’ their anger onto the punching bag tested for higher levels of aggression than the group who had not. Far from letting go of anger, venting – in this case in very physical form – made people feel worse, and for a longer period of time. Doing nothing (not venting) was more effective at letting go of anger than venting was.
Venting anger against a punching bag is one thing. But what about expressing anger verbally, either to the person you are angry with or someone who will listen? This to me seems like a different proposition all together, but I could well be wrong. Cognitive scientists are beginning to point to neuroplasticity – “the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neutron connections throughout life.” This means that when we repeat the same patterns of thinking – whether positive or negative – we are hardwiring our brains to repeat certain habitual responses. Or as Steve Parton puts it, “synapses that wire together, fire together.”
So if you are a habitual venter, you are arguably ‘programming’ yourself to vent as an automatic, default response to any situation you perceive as negative. A prime example of this type of automatic response is the fundamental attribution error, where we attribute someone’s actions to the fact that they are clearly a ‘bad person.’ Only this morning I saw a rant on my son’s school Facebook page about the ‘selfish and stupid woman’ who parks for a few minutes on double yellows outside school in the morning to drop off her kids (alongside a naming and shaming photograph).
Is she simply immoral and uncaring? Or does she live too far from school to walk and also be at work by 9.15am, which is where she needs to be if she wants to keep that job? The fundamental attribution error leaps to the easiest (and laziest) conclusion – she is inherently bad as a person.
(Are all Brexit voters and Trump supporters uneducated, moronic racists? Probably not).
And this type of venting can be very bad for our health. When we are repeatedly in this stage of stressed agitation, we increase the levels of the harmful stress hormone, cortisol, in our bodies. These elevated levels interfere with learning and memory, lower our immunity, increases blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, depression, and early death – the list of harmful consequences goes on and on.
Hardly cathartic, yes?
The good news is that science of neuroplasticity says we can ‘recode’ our brains with reframed (positive) thinking. This is not the same as saying ‘think only positive thoughts and you will be happy.’ But we can break the own habits of our thought patterns and reactions with some mindful reframing – consciously working to see a situation from another person’s perspective is the most simple and effective way we can do this. (And it’s also worth noting that simple measures like exercising and mindfulness can help us to reduce cortisol levels in our bodies).
But is venting really that bad?
A few years ago, I found myself repeatedly ranting about the bullying behaviour of a senior manager to one of my trusted colleagues, who, in practical terms, was powerless to do anything about what was going on. After one occasion my adrenaline was running high, and I realised I was reaching fever pitch yet again. I stopped myself short, and apologised. Her response was simple: “Sometimes we need to rant to others so we know we’re not insane.”
There’s something important here: when we vent and share our pain, we can connect with others who will empathise with us, validate what we’re feeling. We feel less alone, less afraid.
This is what can diffuse anger, and help us to move on.
The key here being ‘move on.’
How many of us find ourselves bitching about the same circumstance, same people, same issues, to the same group of people we know we can rely on to join in? Negative energy can propel us to take action – and in the case of the bullying colleague I did end up tackling it head on, as I realised I was in a position to do so.
Venting can be the first sign that we need to hold someone accountable for their actions; but that involves holding ourselves accountable too – working out what our choices are, and taking those steps to move ourselves out of anger and into action.
There’s supportive empathy and then there’s collusion
These are the hallmarks of unproductive venting: an ability to move on or do something about it (I’m powerless, nothing would change); the tendency to attribute blame; the unwillingness to take personal responsibility for changing the situation.
We bitch about a certain individual, but avoid having the direct conversation with him or her about how their actions are impacting your or those around you. We instead stay stuck in a toxic culture of our own making and choosing – drawn to the same people because they’ll collude with us in our ranting, and make us feel – momentarily – like we’re not alone.
Step outside the echo chamber
This type of collective venting can serve a real purpose at certain points in time. The ranting I am seeing in my social media streams right now is a justifiable outpouring and of outrage – I’m indignant that people are being asked to ‘move on’ and process their emotions already.
But just as the results of Brexit and the U.S election showed us, we must beware the echo chamber of our networks – they will, for the most part, reflect back our own views and values. This can trick us into thinking that our views are commonly held, and that Brexit won’t happen, and Hillary will win. Online, this can lull us into a false sense that by expressing our views, sharing articles, and commenting on posts, we are taking real action.
These conversations are critical, and can service an important purpose in generating ideas and connecting us to others. But at a certain point we need to step outside the venting echo chamber and take the actions that are less comfortable and harder work – whatever those may be.